At Toronto Metropolitan University, cast-offs find new homes with students. And nothing costs a thing.
Hours before the Free Store at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) opened on the morning of August 29, 2023, a line of students wrapped around the entire floor of the building. The crowd grew so large that staff issued post-its with timestamps at ten-minute intervals. By the time the store closed up after a week, it had served 1,671 students.
They were all there for one reason: free stuff. TMU’s Sustainability Office had developed an innovative and community-centered solution to help students while preventing discarded items from heading to landfills. Launched in 2022, the Free Store returned this year by popular demand to again give students the chance to pick up donated items … all for free.
Items ranged from binders, lamps, chairs, and microwaves, to clothes, mini-fridges, dishes, even a 40-inch flat-screen TV. Students were limited to two items each, or one for particularly coveted items like appliances and furniture.
Sharmilla Raj, the university’s Sustainability Office Lead, got the idea for the Free Store after assisting with an end-of-term Eco-Move Out, where students swap or donate items they can’t take home. The university used to donate unclaimed Eco-Move Out items to local charities, but Raj wanted to get them into the hands of other students. “Belongings donated by outgoing students were most needed by — and best suited to — the incoming student community,” says Charmian Zoll, a communications specialist with TMU’s Facilities Management and Development department. The Sustainability Office continued to collect donations throughout the summer from TMU students, faculty, and staff through donation drives.
The Free Store project has three goals: to help lower costs related to higher education, to save items from ending up in landfills, and to educate students on sustainable practices.
Students have been thrilled. Thomas, a computer engineering student living alone for the first time, went home with a chair. “I was already looking for furniture,” he said. “I picked up an orange chair that will be the accent piece for my living room!”
After visiting the store, Sustainability Office volunteers and staff encouraged students to fill out a survey focused on their interest in and involvement with sustainable issues and practices, receiving a free succulent plant for their time.
Altogether, the Free Store saved 2,215.5 lbs from the landfill and found new homes for 47,007 items since August. “I hope that the Free Store also inspires our community to explore options for repair, reuse, and repurposing for belongings they no longer need that are still usable,” Zoll said.
With plans in place for the Free Store to return in 2024, TMU has joined the network of Canadian universities that have embraced the concept of a free store, including the University of Toronto, York University, and the University of Ottawa, which boasts one of the longest-running formal free store programs, dating back to 2008.